If you took Tennessee Williams, put him in drag, asked him to recreate a Civil War ala ‘Gone With The Wind’ darkly comic piece with the express purpose of respecting and subverting the genre at the same time, you might come close to what Sisters Grimm founders Ash Flanders and Declan Greene have created with ‘Summertime in the Garden of Eden’.
‘Summertime’ is a black comedy satire that defies every expectation we have of the stereotypical Southern heroines, about our etiquette, equality, gender and race, all wrapped up in a very non-PC bundle but that we still recognise in its expression and walks the tightrope of hilarity and offence. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I didn’t know what side of that tightrope to fall on. If this play aired on the ABC (before the current government shut it down), I’m convinced it would meet the fate of The Chaser’s ‘Make a Wish’ sketch. It’s satire with big bite and if you present it your fleshy vulnerable and conservative underbelly, it will slap it until it stings.
But Sisters Grimm do more than push boundaries in re-crafting how we perceive our own conventions of role and genre; they do it with clever material and talent. It’s tongue-in-cheek with substance and integrity. It satirises pretension of image, of the sacred, of suppression and its sacrilegious content can quickly have a serious edge that rescues it from offence for offence sake. It’s unmistakably edgy yet played with glorious authentic melodrama that lapses briefly into meta-theatre when even it owns its own pretensions. It’s comedy deliciously served on a fluffy cloud of sweet insidiousness.
I did spend the first twenty minutes of this show processing how I felt about the role reversals and racial expressions, especially with Agent Cleave’s Daisy May Washington. The juxtaposition of a handsome bearded man in a dress with distinctly feminine mannerisms clearly playing a woman without ‘playing a woman’ does take a moment to adjust to as audience. Then there’s Bessie Holland’s Big Daddy and Genevieve Giuffre’s ‘Mammy’, with dolly in hand and suddenly your head is reeling with how on earth you could find the subverted convention of what we expect as relatively conservative theatre-goers possibly amusing. So you have a choice: don’t find it amusing or go with it. I chose the latter and was pleased I did, even just to enjoy the superb acting from the ensemble.
Agent Cleave was one of my favourites. His focus and gesture was impressive but Peter Paltos as Clive O’Donnell, Daisy May’s love interest, was incredibly powerful in his role’s dimensions, as lover, cheat, liar, victim and victor. He was utterly believable in a play that sets out to challenge this very style and had terrific comic timing to boot. Holland and Giuffre also delivered sterling performances in extremely challenging roles and Olympia Bukkakis as Honey Sue Washington was thoroughly entertaining in her ‘Savage Garden’ (oh, the irony) solo.
Declan Greene has directed a twisted anti-play, anti-form and anti-conventions in its gothic/ romance blend that shakes us out of our comfort zone and immerses us in a new way to treat an old story. Marg Howell’s set gorgeously typifies the extravagance and decadence of the Old South with humour and irreverence and its destruction throughout the play is treated in exactly the same way. The opening entrance of Daisy May captures exactly this idea and sets it all in motion, emerging from unexpected places and reminding us all that whatever you think you can hide, it’s going to be exposed in the next 70 minutes of this play.
So give in, dance in the garden, smell the flowers, wrap yourself in cotton wool then rip it off, choke on it and you’ll emerge all the better for it.